Why I am (sorta-not-really-but-then-again-maybe) emergent

This is just a little bit of thinking-out-loud for me as I try and get my rhetoric round a few concepts in time for writing my docu voice-over. Read, or don’t read, whatever…

About two-and-a-half years ago, I began a process of questioning, wrestling and researching that led me from a state of quasi-agnosticism (or nominal, disengaged Christianity at best) to vital, captivated faith in Christ. I don’t know if this was a case of re-engaging with faith I had as a child or finding it for the first time – either way, whereas years ago I was genuinely baffled by people who said things like “I love Jesus” (how does that work exactly?), today that is not just an abstract concept to me.

One of the biggest barriers to my journey back to faith was mainstream Christianity. I was raised Catholic, which I found mind-numbingly dull; so although there were parts of the Jesus narrative that I had found beautiful as a child, these were choked out by my bad experiences at church.

As an adolescent, my political consciousness became increasingly engaged and I grew evermore resentful of the sexist, homophobic, rigid and hierarchical nature of church dogma. This compounded what I perceived as the arrid spiritual landscape of dry Catholic ritual (sorry mum). The alternatives – mainline Protestant or Evangelicalism – were no solution; these people were still grappling with evolution, fer fucks sake! So my resentment with Christianity grew and I stopped going to church as soon as I moved away from home.

Eventually, during my gap year in Québec, I found a beautiful, vibrant Christian community (St Martha’s in the Basement, at McGill University in Montréal) that was everything I didn’t even know I was looking for. Inclusive, critically engaged, informal, non-hierarchical, feminist-friendly and passionate about social justice, it was basically a church for people who didn’t like church (people like me, then). In this welcoming environment, my faith grew and grew.

I can’t remember when I first heard the term ’emerging church’; it was probably shortly after I returned to the UK and started attending a grace-based (although more conservative) Vineyard church. The stuff people were writing about chimed strongly with my positive experiences with St M’s; thus I have felt a natural affinity with EC writers and have continued to find emergence thinking to be a vital part of my theology and faith. Whether or not I self-identify as emergent is a matter I will address later on.

I suppose at this point I should clarify what I mean by “emergence theology”. The EC is, in many ways, a reaction, a backlash against something intuited as distastful within mainstream Christianity. There is a disillusionment with organised Christianity; its perceived rigidity and misguidedness. But where some people deal with this problem by walking away from Jesus altogether, emergents attempt to use Christianity’s own internal resources to regenerate the ailing church from within, stemming from the conviction that there must be more to this whole “following Jesus” thing than we’ve been told.[1]

This may, to some, sound like bratty anti-authoritarianism (and I’m sure for a few it is just that) but it becomes less so when you consider the movement’s historical context. Phyllis Tickle, among others, has observed that “every 500 years, the church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale”. That is, there are seasons in the church’s life where she becomes too hardened in her doctrines and constructs and needs to undergo some sort of detox. IMHO, we are long overdue one of these, and it is indeed apparent that we are on the verge of one.

So, if these happen on roughly a “once every 500 years” timeframe, what toxins have been building up over the last 5 centuries that we need to get rid of? This is the question I’ll be addressing in my next post on the subject…


[1] I should clarify here that when I talk about things such as ‘re-envisaging’, ‘deconstructing’ (etc.) Christianity, I am speaking of the social/cultural construct of Christianity, rather than the reality that Christianity points to, for while we cannot deconstruct or reimagine God, we can always rework our concepts of God, which are frail, human, (in some cases) socially constructed and in constant need of critique.

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4 responses

  1. Definitely sounds of brain static 🙂 You should know that I am a brain-static professional. I think the 500 years timeline is a bit interesting, yet I would like you to think about the implications of geography. Going to the West, 500 marks a general sense of the Dark Age, 1000 coincides with the Crusades, 1500, is the Protestant Reformation. However, I would contend that 300 with the Arian controversy, 700 with the Iconoclasm controversy, 1000 with the papal controversy, 1300 with the Hesychast controversy, 1700 with a general sense of Enlightment, and present-day with a general discontent for dualism are a bit more interesting theological markers.

    I would also be interested in seeing if you could connect a sense of CS Lewis with his “chronological snobbery” to some of the ethos of the “Emergent” movement. Granted, I do not have loads of familiarity, but there seems to be a general tendency of the Emergent movement to explore historic practices of the Church, although in a general grab-bag form.

    You could also put a key Western historic marker in the work of Aquinas as he represents one of the first truly “systemic theologians” and generally helped springboard consistently the work of dualistic theology as it developed post-Reformation.

    (I’m following the comments to this thread in the email, so feel free to engage me here as you polish your thoughts.)

    • Hey Linz, no internet access so I’ll just respond in brief to one of your points. I reckon I would lump the Enlightenment in with the Reformation as I think the stuff that happened around 1500 with the invention of the printing press leading to the over-privileging of rational/abstract/linear thought to the detriment of everything else. Also yes absolutely to the ‘grab-bag’ surfing of church history (to be expected really, ‘radical eclecticism’ being one of the hallmarks of postmodernity), I think there is a sense of ecclesial bricolage although I am not sure that this is a bad thing…I think any ‘chronological snobbery’ is aimed at the Enlightenment and there is definitely a lot of stuff we need to take dead aim at (which I will deal with in my next post) but I don’t think the Enlightenment was all bad…from the way some people are writing about it you’d think it was the worst thing to befall Christianity. But now I’m getting over-generalisey…

  2. Definitely a hallmark on using some academic vocabulary; I had to look up the meaning of “bricolage” 🙂

    I guess one thing that would be interesting is how people in the Emergent Church discern the quality of their sources from which they grab. Is a sense of source quality even important to a lot of them?

    As an engineer, I generally take issues with the way the Enlightenment has been promulgated through engineering practice, privileging theoretical engineering sciences over engineering design so my challenges with the Enlightenment originate from a wholly different domain. However, I don’t think people know what they are honestly speaking of when they discuss scientific inquiry.

    I also think that it is an unfortunate metaphor to think of the Church stagnating to the point of death every 500 years, particularly as I realized the story of the Church is a constantly dynamic narrative throughout the entirety of history.

    For my part, I have to wonder if a Western-led globalization is one of the most challenging features for the Church today… but I think that is for my own musing 🙂

  3. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

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